Saul Griffith knows the US energy system better than just about anyone on this planet. He’s an inventor, a MacArthur genius fellow, and the founder and CEO of Otherlab, where his team was contracted by the Department of Energy to track and visualize the entirety of America’s energy flows. I had Griffith on The Ezra Klein Show last year for our climate series to lay out what it would look like for America to decarbonize. It was an awesome episode, but it was just a start.
Last month, Griffith formed an organization called Rewiring America and released an ebook of the same name that details the path to effectively decarbonize the US economy by 2035 without forcing Americans to sacrifice their current lifestyles and without having to invent any new technology. Just as importantly — and this is why it fits our mobilization series — Griffith worked with economists to come up with an estimate of how many new jobs this kind of mobilization could create: 25 million over the next five years, they found. More than that, they looked at what kinds of jobs these would be and where they’d be created.
Griffith’s plan is just about the boldest I’ve seen — and there are real questions about whether our political system is up for the task. But those are, crucially, political questions; part of answering them is showing that they can be answered, and in ways that make working Americans better off rather than worse. We are in the midst of an unprecedented triple crisis: a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a climate crisis, each unlike anything we’ve ever faced. If there is a time to be bold, this is it.
This podcast is part of a larger Vox project called The Great Rebuild, which is made possible thanks to support from Omidyar Network, a social impact venture that works to reimagine critical systems and the ideas that govern them, and to build more inclusive and equitable societies. All Great Rebuild coverage is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
You say it’s possible to keep America on the 1.5 degree warming path, cut 70 to 80 percent of emissions by 2035, and that we don’t need any new technologies to do it. How do we do that?
The short answer is we need to electrify nearly everything. The longer answer is we have to have a massive wartime type mobilization of industry.
Why is electrifying everything the answer?
We need to decarbonize very quickly. Climate change could make the current crisis we have look paltry, which is a sobering thought.
And we don’t really have a vision for how to create the same amount of liquid fuels as we do today to drive our cars. So really the only answer if we’re going to continue to have a lot of cars is to electrify them. Similarly, we don’t really have an answer to providing heat to our homes that’s zero carbon unless we electrify. It’s really the only pathway that’s viable to get to zero carbon. We will still use a little bit of non-electricity for a few uses, but the bulk of our energy will be electricity.
The really good news that’s hidden in there is if we electrify everything, we’ll only need 40 to 50 percent of the energy we currently use to do all of the things that we do today. So it actually makes the project a lot easier. All the efficiency we really need basically comes from choosing to electrify.
The point is that America has enough renewable resources such that we could probably keep exactly the same lifestyles, and if we do it all electrically, we can do it at half the energy. And we can produce all of that energy cleanly, domestically in America.
Does energy get more expensive under this world? Is it more expensive to electrify things and pay for it that way?
That’s our choice — it absolutely doesn’t have to. It’s very likely that we could make energy in the future cheaper for everyone.
Today, if you’re paying about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and putting it into an electric car, that’s about two or three cents per mile. If you’re paying two or three dollars a gallon for gasoline into an equivalent-sized car, you’re paying more like 15 cents a mile for the fuel. So you’re saving more than 10 cents for every mile you’re driving with an electric vehicle. There’s a little story like that for each of these things.
We do need to focus very clearly on keeping the cost of the electricity low. If we look around, there is proof that that can be done. Australia has very successfully run policies and utility regulation that has enabled rooftop solar in Australia to cost about six or seven cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than basically any utility in America can deliver. So there is a future where the cheapest energy that you can use will be the solar generated on your roof.
But for America to get there, we need to follow Australia’s path in terms of creating the regulatory environment that makes that possible. Right now in the US, rooftop solar costs something like 20 cents per kilowatt-hour and is probably more expensive than what your utility delivers. We need a national program to turn that around. Then that could be a large source of cheap electricity. And if we also focus on the utility electricity sector and keeping their costs in check, then we can likely save every American household a couple of thousand dollars a year.
If we can’t even get universal adoption of an extremely basic technology like a face mask in the middle of a pandemic, what does that imply for the adoption of more complex, expensive technologies for climate?
I think the challenge that you’re talking about is very real and it applies to everything. People are slower to move than we need, and bad ideas die hard. I think that’s why I believe more in selling the story about the carrots than the story of moral righteousness and the environment. I personally believe the world will be better with more polar bears and more whales. But we now have 50 years of evidence that that won’t move people as quickly as having a cleaner, greener future beat the cost of the dirty world that we aim to leave.
For the first time in my professional career, I can actually see that moment now — if we did something like the wartime mobilization effort that America did for World War II. Roosevelt basically said, we need votes, we need guns, we need tanks, we need munitions, and we need airplanes. They motivated industry to produce those things as fast as possible. America went from producing, you know, under 1,000 airplanes in 1939 to having 300,000 produced by 1945. If we had that level of effort, we would bring the costs down on electric vehicles, on batteries, on heat pumps, and we would be saving every American household a few thousand dollars a year.
And I think particularly now in this economic environment, the promise of all of the jobs created by that program, which would be in the tens of millions, and the promise of lower costs to every American family is probably is a more compelling argument than for the moral righteousness of not burning gasoline anymore.
Let’s talk about those jobs. I think the broad view is that jobs will be destroyed by a Green New Deal of this sort — that all these people who are employed in coal mines and other places will be out of work. Will jobs be destroyed through an effort to decarbonize America?
The total number of jobs created, especially in the short term, is in the tens of millions. Yes, a few jobs will be destroyed, but it’s a small number. In the existing energy industry, there’s about 2 million direct jobs. Those are people finding fossil fuels, mining fossil fuels, refining them, selling them. Some of those jobs will go away, but they won’t go away overnight — they will phase out.
But there will be an enormous amount of jobs that require very similar skills. Most of the jobs required to decarbonize are skilled technician jobs. You don’t need a PhD — you probably don’t even need a university degree. They look like construction jobs. They look like manufacturing jobs. And critically, they look like a lot of retrofitting jobs because we just we can’t build everything new; we have to retrofit our homes. We have to retrofit a lot of things. And so I think there’s more than enough employment for everyone.
The other interesting thing is that the future is going to be a lot of energy generated in your local community because that cuts down on the transmission distribution costs. So it’s a lot of putting solar cells on your church roof, on your school roof, on the housing roofs. It’s retrofitting all of those buildings. And those are jobs that can’t be offshored — that can’t be done in China or Mexico. They will be in every zip code in North America. So I think you can say with a straight face that there will be many, many jobs created and they will be created everywhere.
Then I think you have to say, how are we going to treat those workers in the fossil fuel industry who will lose their jobs and maybe are too old or unwilling to do it? I think we should thank them for a century of great service. The fossil fuels built modern America and the American dream. I think we should treat the people that are going to lose that small number of jobs generously and with thanks, rather than demonizing those jobs and not providing a safety net as we retire those jobs out.
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